Was it a storm? Was it a swarm?
March 28, 2021 6:06 PM   Subscribe

I’ve never really understood what kind of weather or insect event occurred on a highway between Tucson and Phoenix back in the 90s. Surely, someone here can enlighten me.

Many years ago now, I was driving with a passenger in my small car on Rt 17 from Tucson to Phoenix. It was daytime and there were no other cars around us. Seemingly out of nowhere, I had the sensation of my car being buffeted by a sudden and intensely strong wind, such that the car jogged a (tiny) bit to the left. It lasted but a second. My windshield was simultaneously scattered with debris, and when I pulled over to figure out what was up, the windshield was pretty smeary and there were about a dozen or so partial bodies of bees on the windshield. We hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary in the moments before this occurred, but we are both, admittedly, rather unobservant.

What happened there? Why were there bees? Why were there bee halves? Were they already halved, or did that occur when they hit my car? I’ve always assumed it was a “dust devil” that picked up some random bees along the way, but I’m thinking that there’s got to be someone out there who might be able to clear up this persistent personal mystery.
posted by dreamphone to Science & Nature (3 answers total)
Probably a mini-tornado or a micro-burst?

A swarm would have darkened the sky and swarm of insects don't swarm freeways (too much air turbulence by the vehicles) as there would be a lot more evidence of dead bees than just a windshield. I used to manage a bus company and we get a TON of smeared bugs on the windshields and whatnot when driving through some areas certain parts of the year. And that' wasn't even really a swarm.

One possibility is a beehive got tossed onto the freeway or picked up by wind? Who knows? But I'd expect a bit more evidence of honey or such if it's a beehive.
posted by kschang at 6:22 PM on March 28

Based on the location it could very well have been a dust devil. You would have known if it was an actual tornado or a microburst from a storm. I've seen many dust devils in that part of SE Arizona, and some of them can get really big with winds of 40-50 mph, which would definitely be enough to buffet a car briefly.

If it was a dust devil it could have swept up some bees and other bugs —maybe it had passed over a patch of wildflowers or some other spot where insects had concentrated— and the swirling winds kept them temporarily trapped.

I wouldn't be surprised if the poor little bees were broken in half just from the impact with your windshield. A bee thorax has that narrow point where it often tears after embedding its stinger, and we've all seen recent video of 'murder wasps' deftly ripping bees in half when they raid a hive.
posted by theory at 7:01 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Having lived in Arizona my whole life specifically in Phoenix, and having made the trip to Tucson and back hundreds of times, the jerking motion you described happens all the time! Pretty much any period of high wind will produce that effect. This often stirs up dust devils too, so they almost seem to go together. However, if it was the rainy season or just unusually damp, then there isn't a lot of dust to give that classic brown mini-tornado appearance, then you could have totally gotten hit by just the wind, plant bits, and bugs...but no dust. Also, years ago there were a TON more bugs. When I started driving, back in the mid nineties, I would have to clean off my windshield every time I got gas, if not more. Anymore it isn't even an issue, and it actually startles me if a large bug hits the glass!
posted by sharp pointy objects at 7:02 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]

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